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Worldbuilding (projectrho.com)
187 points by japaget on Aug 12, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 36 comments

"When you are trying your hand at worldbuilding, please try to avoid ice planets, desert planets, swamp planets, farm planets, volcano planets, and other single-biome planets. The pejorative term for this mistake is Monocosm..."

What about arguably the most famous and most successful planet in science fiction? Dune, a desert planet, was a monocosm.

> Dune, a desert planet, was a monocosm.

Which planet of the Dune series?

I guess you're talking about Arrakis, and is exactly what a monicosm is.

Herbert is one of the best world builder ever. He got the world of Arrakis by looking at real world environments and then added layers on top of them, the melange, the sandworms, what kind of people could live there, what kind of society and most importantly cults and religion could spawn.

"Herbert wanted to write a novel on the desire in Western societies for messiahs—someone on a white horse who comes to fix the sorry mess we’re in. He spent two or three years researching the topic.

Then he wrote a magazine story on how the USDA was controlling sand dunes in Oregon. And he had a eureka moment.

He realized that a world of dunes and its harsh environment would be the perfect place for a messiah to rise and surge out among the vast entirety of human civilization. Thus, Herbert’s amazing world-building. "

"Working on that book kindled an interest in religion, the psychology of leadership, and how each affected the minds of followers. Herbert researched, collected notes, and read nearly 200 books as he dove into the topic, building a database of story ideas as he went.

Herbert’s 1957 trip to the dunes of Oregon turned out to be a moment of inspiration. Seeing how the piles of sand held such sway over the life and landscape around them sparked an interest in ecology. He imagined a world overtaken by desert, and a lone planetologist obsessed with reclaiming it. This seed found fertile ground, growing into early outlines of what would become the setting of Dune—but the true soul of the book wasn’t born until the environment was fused with his research into the psychology of a messiah and his follower"

Worlds sufficiently different from Earth are monocosms, from our perspective. On Earth, temperatures range from -40 to +40. Change that to -75 to +5, and you've got an ice planet, even though a species adapted to it might find -40 as different from -20 as we find a swamp from a savannah.

Similarly if we encountered a planet identical to earth but where the sea level was 2km higher, we'd think of it as an ocean planet, no matter the biological or climatic differences between different ocean areas. All the while, aliens from a less watery world would certainly classify ours as an ocean planet. Or if we found a planet with the atmosphere of Venus, we might call it a fog planet, though any lifeforms living there might see in wavelengths that can penetrate that fog.

That's a trope, an overused cliché. Dune magnifies it, as can often be done. But if your universe involves travels between places, it is a waste to make a planet a single place with no variation. That would be like saying that USA is just a giant corn field.

I find Starwars stupidly annoying about it, where a planet is usually a single place and present no variation. Seeing that there are swamps on Dagobah, I expect there also must be nice sunny beaches somewhere.

Star Wars (the original film and its two sequels) uses this (and similar shortcuts in other aspects, like making the storm troopers wear full body armor to be completely interchangeable, or putting the main characters in a small insular group with no outside friends or living relatives, or giving the evil empire an unspeakable super weapon, or giving the Jedi characters arbitrary convenient magical powers, or making the robot R2D2 able to do almost anything in the empire’s computer systems) as a way of simplifying and clarifying the story. The universe of Star Wars is not supposed to be a realistic one. It’s a mishmash of previous (terrestrial) movie plots, themes, characters, and scenes lightly painted over with a space setting.

The different planets are single places, with settings chosen to fit the needs of the storytelling. Think of them as backdrops in a stage play. As far as the films are concerned anything not on screen might as well not exist, and the rest of the various planets don’t need to be consistent with a realistic broader universe. Trying to paint them all in would waste scarce screen time and confuse the audience.

Arguably this is one feature that made the “Star Wars universe” hopeless to adapt to try to tell stories with broader context. If you start trying to flesh out the details, the planets, galactic government, spaceship technology, concept of the Jedi, etc. all start to fall apart, because they were never very carefully designed in the first place, but just hacked together to meet the particular needs of the original story.

Every rule has its exceptions, but you need to really understand the rules before you can profitably break them.

I really don't understand why some think it's a "rule" if it has so many exceptions.

Dune is far from the only scifi monobiome.

The planet Hoth, where the Rebels have their base, at the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back, is an ice planet. The planet Winter in Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness is an ice planet. There are dozens of others, many of which are documented here:


Think about why your examples work: We only see the base area and immediate surroundings on Hoth, and only for a short while. These planets work in Star Wars because they're each a single small part of a whole. The planets are monobiomes, but the story moves between enough of them that while it may look silly, the setting is still varied. It's very different to a story that takes place predominantly in one biome.

Note exceptions like Naboo: One of the few planets in the Star Wars movies where a story takes place across wider areas of a the planet. Suddenly there's a planet with varied biomes.

The monobiomes in Star Wars are monobiomes because there was no visual reason to expand, so they just made it the same in most cases.

In the case of Winter the planet is cold - in the middle of an ice age - but while the planet is all cold, it is not all identical. Ursula Le Guin explicitly drew maps [1], showing the glaciers, but also glacier free areas, mountain ranges, oceans, rivers. It's a cold world, but diverse within those limitations. It's not a single identical place. And the cold serves a purpose of setting the cities apart from the adversity of escaping over the ice shield.

I'd argue it's a great example of knowing to break the rules: Make it an interesting ice planet with stark differences between different areas. The problem is not specifically that something is an ice planet or a desert planet, but that something is uniform to the point that describing one place describes the entire planet. The easy way of avoiding that is to not make it an ice or desert or forest planet, and so if you need a tutorial on how to build your world, that's probably your best bet. The hard way is what Ursula Le Guin did with Winter of creating a diverse and interesting world within narrow constraints.

[1] http://www.ursulakleguin.com/Maps/Map-Gethen.html

I'm still going through the link, but I think I can answer your question in the general sense. In creative writing classes you get a lot of rule of thumb advice similar to what's being talked about here. The reason it's a rule isn't because you're not supposed to break it. The reason it's considered a rule is to discourage students from using a particular theme, technique, or idea as their primary tool at the expense ignoring growth in their personal areas of weakness.

It's not assumed that the student will follow the rule once they've finished the course. But during the learning period they're discouraged from breaking the rule because the overarching goal is to have them develop a broad technical skill set that they can then refine back down into their own particular style.

It so happens that our own planet was once a monobiome kinda like Hoth: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snowball_Earth

Admittedly, this was before the Cambrian explosion.

Well, yeah, the fact that it's an overused cliche is a pretty solid argument against.

Dune is a carefully-thought-out world with a consistent ecology. Hoth isn't a "world" at all in the worldbuilding sense; it's a few miles of snow for a setpiece to happen in. And that's okay, if you only need it for half an hour and a setpiece. There's nothing wrong with choosing to write fantasy adventure with space opera trappings. But if you want to write science fiction set on a compelling world, you need to understand why Dune is interesting and Hoth is not.

Arrakis is hardly just a monocosm. It has a living breathing ecological history that explains why its the way it is rather than it just being an arbitrary set piece (like most of the monocosms in say, Star Wars). Originally it was a lush tropical realm until the advent of the sandworms who in turn devastated the environment causing it to become the wasteland it was at the time of the first Dune book. As the series progresses, the environment of Arrakis changes as well and I believe by the end of Frank Herbert's books large swaths of it had returned to a thick, vegetative state. The changing nature of the planet Arrakis is key to understanding the themes of the Dune series.

> The changing nature of the planet Arrakis is key to understanding the themes of the Dune series.

Indeed -- this was one of his goals when writing the series.


Worldbuilding has its own Stackexchange which sometimes has interesting discussions about difficulties in creating internally consistent fantasy worlds. https://worldbuilding.stackexchange.com

Wanted to mention that as well. This stack exchange is incredible, it's like soundcloud for science fiction. I don't contribute myself, but I'm subscribed to weekly newsletter, I always enjoy it.

I don't know what's inspiring all these worldbuilding posts to make the HN front page, but I'm enjoying the hell out of it.

HN seems to go in a discovery path when a really interesting subject hits the front page. People follow the initial link with new links and we get many more articles about the same subject in a big burst. I do love seeing these waves. It would be interesting to track them and see what other articles about a subject didn't get the votes.

I dip into https://www.reddit.com/r/worldbuilding/ every so often, most of it is so-so, but occasionally there's some good stuff in there.

Thanks! That was actually really useful

What other posts have there been?

Also https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=14793809 last month.

Three in a month (that I've seen, at least) isn't a lot, but for HN it's enough to make me notice.


There was recently a thread about crafting plausible maps (aka "mapmaking", a related topic).

Thanks! These are titles that I imagine didn't catch my eye at the time.

Greg Egan has recently released another novel, Dichronauts, which features another universe where the laws of physics are changed due to a sign change. (The first one is the Clockwork Rocket trilogy.)



Greg Egan is the only sci-fi author in my adult life who makes me think "I like this, but I'm not smart enough to really understand it." Feel free to take that as a recommendation either for or against. :)

I recently had an existential crisis reading an Egan book where a brain modification allows people to control the collapse of quantum waveforms and therefore the protagonist can "smear" into infinite possibilities and then "collapse" to the one where the desired outcome occurs. Do we already exist across an infinite number of dimensions and we are just limited by our ability to comprehend a single possibility? it's a fun thought.

Which book is that? I'd love to read.

So far, Incandescence is the toughest of his novels that I've read, and the main world is an extreme and beautiful conception where the ambient forces are all peculiar and the inhabitants are figuring out their cosmology as the novel goes on.

That said, I really could have used more diagrams while I was reading. I only found out after finishing that Egan has a whole bunch of Java applets on his website explaining the experiments that the main characters in the novel carry out, and why they give the results they do.

Quarantine it's a full novel. I feel like minded and the Egan books hit upon so many of the things I dream about. This author along with William Gibson and Neal Stephenson really resonate with a lot of the cutting edge concepts we deal with. I had no idea Egan was a programmer but it's apparent he is a genius reading his books so it fits.

Possibly "Axiomatic", a short story collection. It has incredible material.

I am madly in love with this mans writing, but MAN was that a tough read. With clockwork rocket (and the 5D sequences in Diaspora) I had to take some time with pen and paper to understand what he was saying, but Dichronauts takes this to another level entirely. I'm not sure I'll ever fully grok this one...

His more far-out books are fully recommended though if you want your mind blown with some exotics physics..!

I happened to catch some sort of a fever while reading Dichronauts, and had some really unpleasant fever dreams of the Dichronauts universe...

Really cool subreddit for this type of discussion: https://www.reddit.com/r/worldbuilding/

Just an FYI, I am one of the supporters of this guy on Patreon:


There are a few things I really liked on the site and believed very strongly were important to continue disseminating. My particular interest was in some of the rocket designs and space colonization material. The author has done a good deal of genuine original research and covers some very granular design details.

If you like this, be sure to flip to the bottom of the page for the site's full table of contents. The (literal) Worldbuilding section is just one small part of Atomic Rockets, which covers practically every aspect of sci-fi and the real science (or lack thereof) behind it, in wonderfully well-researched and illustrated detail.

What a gorgeous site! The Internet is an amazing place; thank you!

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